Rep. Chis Stewart (R–Utah) last week introduced a account which would require social media platforms to verify the age of every registered user and prohibit children under 16 from registering. But the bill would serve neither the interests of young teenagers nor adults.
HR 821, which Stuart introduced in House Committee on Energy and Commerce, requires platforms to verify age using official identification, such as a birth certificate or driver’s license. The bill would apply to all platforms that allow users to create accounts to post, share or view user-generated content (UGC). Additionally, to be covered, the platform’s primary purpose must be to disseminate UGC.
This broad definition of “social media” could be interpreted by regulators to include messaging, video, and email services, none of which are specifically excluded from the statute’s provisions. And unlike many recent proposals to regulate online life, the bill does not establish a market capitalization threshold to spare smaller platforms from collecting sensitive data from users—which would be expensive to protect and would threaten user privacy in the event of a data leak.
“This one [bill] protects [children] from the environment itself and protecting them from the total immersion that simply engulfs them and begins to destroy their value or sense of self-worth,” Stewart told Fox News. For CNN’s Jake Tapper, Congressman marked TikTok “emotional heroin”.
Stewart has quoted data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on teenage mental health to make his case, but an oft-cited 2021 report suggests that online socialization improved the mental health of many teenagers during the pandemic: “[S]students who were virtually connected to others during the pandemic had a lower prevalence of poor mental health during the pandemic (35.5% vs. 42.0%) and during the past 30 days (28.7% vs. 36.8%), persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (41.9% vs. 51.7%), that they had seriously considered a suicide attempt (18.4 vs. 24.9%) and that they had attempted suicide (8.0% vs. 12.2%) compared to to those who were not practically connected to others during the pandemic.”
It is imprudent to anticipate blanket regulation as a response to the pandemic-induced teen mental health crisis, especially since that crisis appears to be at least partially mitigated by online social interaction.
The bill would further violate the liberties of adults.
“Mandatory age verification means that every user will be forced to hand over identifying information before accessing legal content or speaking on social media — a chilling proposition that courts will strike down just as easily as they have in the past,” Ari Cohn, a free speech consultant to speak at TechFreedom Reason. “For someone so worried eye government targeting people with different points of view, it’s interesting that Stewart suggests eliminating anonymous speech and effectively creating a database of dissidents.”
Stewart’s office did not respond Reasoninquiry about the possible harms of limiting online anonymity.